There's a showdown brewing at city hall these days. No, it's not about the minimum wage, or taxis, or anyone's salaries. This is a fight that gets less limelight, but it's super-important and involves a basic question we should all care about: How can we loosen the stranglehold of big money that controls the city council?
See, every year, the same few dozen rich donors write big checks to their favorite city council candidates, and since candidates can trade that money in for voter eyeballs by blanketing the city in shiny mailers and hiring expensive consultants, the people who rack up the big checks tend to be the people who get elected. The cycle repeats itself, too: The sitting council members often serve those monied interests from the dais, then go back every four years for new big checks, get elected again, and the wheels of power keep turning. New candidates who can't prove they'll be able to fundraise adequately—people who are interested in public service but don't have a Rolodex full of wealthy friends—aren't taken seriously enough to get their political careers off the ground.
Sure, that's just politics, but it's gotten even worse over the years. A 2012 city report showed that from 2001 to 2011, the average contribution to a city council campaign doubled and the percentage of small donations shrank to an all-time low of only 32 percent. That was embarrassing enough to spur the council to pass a few key election reforms that year, championed by Council Member Mike O'Brien.
In 2013, O'Brien started pushing for another fix: public financing for city council elections.
And public financing made it to the ballot. The basics were this: If a candidate could get hundreds of small donations to demonstrate he or she was serious and had support, the city would then match that small money pile sixfold, giving the candidate enough of a war chest to be relatively competitive against the people who are funded by maxed-out political checks. The match was to be paid for by a nominal property tax (about $6 a year for an average homeowner).
But the measure failed—though it failed by the tiniest of margins, less than 1 percent of the vote. And it failed for a simple, stupid reason: The campaign to help get private money out of politics couldn't get enough private money to be competitive. All those people who give bushels of money to political campaigns? They didn't give to this one.
Progressive groups that endorsed the measure last year are now ready for a serious do-over, and O'Brien's glad to help. He says there's a ready-made coalition that has "come together this year to say, 'We have the resources to pass this if you guys put it on the ballot.'" He's prepared new legislation and adjusted it to accommodate our new districted council elections. "This is an opportunity to have elected officials be accountable to the people," O'Brien says.
So where's the brouhaha?
This time around, Council President Tim Burgess does not want to see the measure go before voters. And he's doing everything in his council-presidential power to stop it. How? Well, technically, the council president has to place any legislation the council considers on the agenda, a move that is usually just a formality. But Burgess flat-out refuses to put O'Brien's public-financing measure on the council's agenda. And time is running out to get it through the council's process in time to be submitted to King County Elections.
Hence: a showdown between election reformer O'Brien and the powerful Burgess.
"Since I've been on the council," says O'Brien, "I'm not aware of a single piece of legislation that a council member wanted to introduce that the council president refused to introduce. This is a new world for me." Typically, he says, even if a council president opposes a certain member's bill, they still allow the discussion.
Burgess isn't backing down, and he fully admits he opposes the bill. "The context for this is that it just failed last November," he tells me. "Admittedly quite narrowly, but the reality is it failed. To bring it back so quickly, in an environment where the ballot is going to be incredibly crowded... for me, personally, is not worth the risk." That "risk" he's talking about is the risk that a crowded ballot may jeopardize the passage of his signature issue, a public pre-K program.
"In my personal view," he says, having too many tax hikes on the ballot "may cause other measures that are tax measures to be defeated. That's my calculus... Public transit and public preschool is just more important to me."
But that calculus doesn't seem to be backed up by electoral history. In fact, analysis by local supporters of public financing, who heard those crowded-ballot fears, showed that having a host of popular tax-funded measures on the ballot really doesn't hurt, and research shows that ballot measures like this actually drive voters to the polls. A group of progressive organizations whipping their voter-turnout machines into high gear for public financing would likely turn out voters who also support pre-K and public transit.
"That theory could be true," says Burgess. "But the risk is that it's not."
O'Brien fires back: "This is the type of thing that brings progressives out to vote. That's a good thing." And while Burgess is famous for an almost obsessive reliance on data and evidence in policy-making, "in this case, he doesn't seem interested in the evidence," O'Brien argues.
Burgess doesn't deny that "there is support among some council members, and there is support among a lot of constituent groups who favor this." But he plans to keep blocking it. "I have made this very clear to Mike O'Brien," he says. "He asked me, 'If I submit this legislation, will you place it on the referral calendar?'... And I said no." But, he stresses, there is always a parliamentary work-around that O'Brien could try—with a majority vote, O'Brien could move to amend the calendar, placing his legislation on the agenda. "If you have a majority of council votes, that will override me," Burgess says. "And you are welcome to do that."
If you're wondering whether that advice is the polite, parliamentary equivalent of "Nyah-nyah, why don't you try and make me"—it is.
And O'Brien thinks being forced to try an end run sucks. He says that kind of move "reeks of a lack of transparency," since he'll have to tailor his bill in advance to guarantee support from a majority of his colleagues, instead of hashing out the contours of the legislation publicly. "I don't think it's what this city council stands for, and it's really unfortunate," he says. Burgess bats that criticism away, saying behind-the-scenes vote-counting "happens all the time" and is just part of the process.
Council members don't usually sass each other this hard in public, but this is a battle over issues each of these politicians holds dear: Burgess's preschool measure, O'Brien's election reform. The two of them also embody the two modes of campaigning at stake here: In his last election, 43 percent of the contributions to Burgess's campaign were more than $600, while in O'Brien's last election, only 24 percent were in that top category. O'Brien also practiced in his own 2013 campaign what he's preaching now: He refused to raise any big money until he'd gotten $10 donations from at least 1,000 different people.
What happens next? We'll have to see if O'Brien can get enough votes to pull the parliamentary runaround.